GREEN BAY — Sometimes families do all the right things to change their course, but still struggle to meet their needs. That happens for many seeking affordable housing, said Dave Pietenpol, executive director of the Ecumenical Partnership for Housing (EPH).
“They went to Catholic Charities for budget counseling, they worked on their debt reduction, they got better employment and they tell us, ‘We can’t find a place that we can afford. We can’t find a landlord that will take us.’ Either they have a history of evictions or poor credit scores,” said Pietenpol. “We’ve got to provide a longer-term solution for our families.”
EPH was formed by four congregations in 1992 to support homeless families. In its first 25 years, the organization served 586 families in the greater Green Bay area. For the first 20 years, EPH — now made up of 21 partnership churches, including nine Catholic parishes — provided transitional housing for families.
“Transitional families stay for nine months on average,” said Pietenpol. “When you move into transitional, you know that you have to leave.”
EPH, which receives no public funds, continues to serve 20 families in transitional housing in nine duplexes owned by the organization and two single family homes owned by churches. In 2012, EPH launched a long-term supportive housing option.
“Families eligible for long-term supportive housing know that this can be their home,” explained Pietenpol, a member of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay. “We start families out at a rent that they can afford, with case management. We work with them to achieve somewhat close to a market rate for rent.”
EPH has case management relationships with the Salvation Army and Golden House, and also works with Freedom House. Families, if they are ready, can bypass transitional housing and move directly into a long-term supportive house.
“If everything goes well, a family can stay where they are (long-term supportive housing),” said Pietenpol. “If the family achieves 50 percent of the area’s median income or $34,000 for a family of four, let’s help you move. You can afford more or we say, ‘Do you want to buy the home from us? We will work with you to be able to do that.’ We have one family right now that’s been in long-term supportive housing for four years and is in the process of working towards purchasing the home from us.”
Successful capital campaign
Pietenpol added that EPH is not looking to expand transitional housing, but has capital monies available to continue to grow long-term supportive housing. Two years ago, “Pathway to Self-Sufficiency,” a capital campaign, was launched by EPH with a goal to raise $1.5 million.
“We achieved that goal,” said Pietenpol. “We have $1,517,000 right now. We have a very generous community. I just feel very grateful.”
As campaign pledge money is received, EPH will continue to purchase homes. The organization currently owns seven single family homes and a duplex, and leases two single family homes to provide long-term supportive housing to 13 families.
Each transitional home is aligned with a partnership church. Churches support EPH with a board member, volunteers, fundraising and prayers. The most recent addition to the EPH partners is St. Matthew Parish in Allouez, which joined two years ago.
Wayne Micksch, the board representative from St. Matthew, also serves the organization as treasurer.
“I used to work with Dave (Pietenpol). We had lost touch, like you usually do,” said Micksch. “We received a letter in the mail asking for donations and it was signed by Dave. My wife, Ginger, and I decided that we should contribute. I learned a little bit about it and wondered why St. Matt’s wasn’t a parish partner.”
Micksch spoke with Fr. Bob Kabat, pastor, who invited him to bring the idea to the parish council. Pietenpol joined him at the meeting. The council voted unanimously to join.
“You get caught up in your own little world,” said Micksch. “You don’t think that there is a homeless problem in Green Bay. It breaks your heart when you hear that somebody is living out of their car. What can you do?”
In June, St. Matthew Parish was paired with a transitional housing unit, one half of a duplex. Resurrection Parish, Allouez, services the other half.
“It’s quite a process. You go in and clean it up,” said Micksch. “It’s not that easy. These people may have never experienced living in a home. They likely have a lot more on their minds than taking care of their homes when they move out.
“We prepare it for the next family,” he added. “Every nook and cranny has to be cleaned. Broken lamps are replaced. New box springs and mattresses and linens are needed.”
Micksch is thankful for the response from parish members. Twenty-one expressed an interest in serving EPH. Twelve parish members participated in the first service day at the housing unit.
“In addition to people who couldn’t put in the time, we collected enough money that we could replace a stove,” he said. “We still have enough money to help with food when necessary. People really stepped up. I’m very proud of our parish.”
The EPH office now has storage rooms with items including cleaning supplies, cookware, furniture and toys for the homes. The items were previously stored in the basements of EPH homes.
“It was becoming more and more uncomfortable going into a home that is supposed to be theirs,” said Pietenpol. “The first view (of the EPH offices) is clutter, but that’s good. You can see the kinds of things we get from volunteers from our partner churches.”
Micksch was able to provide furniture and an automobile through the generosity of his late aunt, Janice Minecke.
“She wanted to give her entire estate to charity,” he said. “We took her furniture and moved it into one of our newest properties. She had a car, a 2008 with 30,000 miles on it. If we can get our clients cars, it helps them get to their jobs or look for a job.
“I considered it a real privilege,” he added. “I was able to give the car to a lady who has four kids.”
The woman was working on the west side of Green Bay and living in an EPH home on the east side of the city. Her car had broken down, so she was walking to work and home. She invited Micksch to see her house.
“‘Come in and see this. I’m taking care of this home and making people really proud of me,’ she said. She was really proud of that home,” said Micksch.
“Family homelessness is hidden in the community because the families aren’t out on the streets,” said Pietenpol. “They are not out walking around. It’s really a challenge creating understanding in our community of the challenges related to family homelessness and the impact that has on children.”
EPH always has waiting lists for housing. The organization has added a third area of focus, a prevention process. The goal is to keep families from becoming homeless.
“What we are starting to do is work with area landlords,” said Pietenpol. “‘Hey, before you evict a family, is this somebody you want to keep, somebody you have good history with, give us a call. Let us come in, talk to the family, talk to you and see if we can keep this family as a good tenant.’ We are in the process of hiring a case manager and are applying for grants.”
While there have been several EPH success stories, some families receiving assistance from the organization still struggle.
“We see both sides,” said Pietenpol. “We see people who just aren’t ready. That’s one of the things we talk about. We can do what we do for all the right reasons, but the rest is up to God. Sometimes we just have to let go. What a family does or how a family responds is out of our hands.”
EPH has set a goal of providing housing for 40 families by 2020. The organization is at 33 today, so the mark seems attainable. More partner churches are welcome, said Pietenpol. Safety, stability and solutions remain the focus.
“We provide safety from abuse and other situations,” explained Pietenpol. “Once they are safe, we provide them with stability. Then you can work on solutions—budget counseling, parenting skills, improved employability and those kind of things. This is what we do and is our mission.
“Our core values impact how we make decisions,” he added. “We asked the leadership team, ‘Why is this important?’ Our last core value, which we put intentionally, is ‘We are called to put our faith into action.’ EPH provides that mechanism to put our faith into action.”